Noah Van Sciver’s currently in-progress (new pages posted almost daily on his tumblr and facebook pages) web-comic serial Fante Bukowski skillfully pairs parody with humanism in this tale of a struggling wannabe author. This is a tightrope walking act that Van Sciver has been impressively practicing for years now–the characters in his stories are often laughably pathetic and then also unexpectedly, refreshingly, heartbreakingly human.
In the hands of a less experienced artist, chuckling at these familiar dudes and bros would mean a job well done and off to the presses, but Van Sciver is expressing something more complex. His shlubby everymen are fun to laugh at, which makes our inevitable self-recognition extra painful. He is writing about us, luring us in with the initial otherness of these inarticulate bozos and then rubbing it in our faces that their problems are our problems. Ain’t it funny how stupid we are? In his one-man “Blammo” anthology comics, there was no confusing author Van Sciver, drawn frail with nerdy glasses, neurotic, and swinging wildly between egomania and self-loathing with the foolish middle-American lowlifes that populate most of his stories. Fante Bukowski‘s title character is another oblivious blowhard, but this time he’s a storyteller himself, seeking fame and fortune through self-expression–bumbling through a world of artists and publishers instead of diner kitchens and construction sites. Bukowski shares the bars, run-down apartments, and littered streets with the working-class but imagines himself above it all. Like the authors he’s named himself after (John Fante and Charles Bukowski, heroes to aimless young students of literature who invariably “grow out of that phase”), Bukowski lives the romantic life of loser-poet.
Although this boorish fraud resembles the jocks he rails against (two pages after accusing less ambitious bar patrons of being jocks, he reminisces fondly about teenage days spent as an active skateboarder) more than the wispy Van Sciver, he is also the closest a non-Van Sciver stand-in character has come to representing the artist himself, which is perhaps why we’ve never seen the artist display such cold cruelty toward his subject. Van Sciver’s own self-loathing (for attempting the business of art, for his perceived lack of skill, for his ostentation) is dumped onto the unfortunate artist caricature of Fante Bukowski . Van Sciver mocks his protagonist relentlessly (his own past, his own youthful naïveté), but still cares enough to render him human (forgiving himself). This pursuit may be born out of compassion or the sadistic desire to make his punching bag most lifelike, and is effective either way. Bukowski’s audacity appeals to our shadenfreud until we find ourselves sympathizing with his hapless hijinks. Ignorantly attempting to do anything is embarrassing and naive, sad and funny, but also admirable and relatable. We can only watch a dog searching for a ball we fake-threw for so long before we begin to feel bad for the dumb thing and throw the real ball extra far to make up for our prank. Similarly, we find ourselves rooting, “somebody give this poor bastard a book deal.”
A modern-day Don Quixote, Bukowski’s windmills are the publishing world, his sword, a plagiarized Unbearable Lightness of Being manuscript and the oft-repeated phrase “I am a fiction writer.” Van Sciver is “a comix artist” and his struggles with his own windmills are contributing to the creation of a complicated and very funny new comic.
Get on board now, before it’s even finished!
Spencer Hicks is a real life Fante Bukowski of the comix world, having drawn and self-published one mediocre mini-comic (reviewed by Comics Bulletin here; available to purchase here). He is currently working on his next comic book (at the ambitious rate of less than a page a month) about a cursed piece of chewed bubble gum found in the anus of Mariah Carey on her wedding day.